By Kim Wheeler, Fort Jackson LeaderNovember 29, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- When Pam Jacobs learned that her husband had received orders to report to Korea in December, she was devastated. After weathering two deployments and other absences in their five-year marriage, she had hoped to avoid more time apart.
Despite her disappointment, Jacobs said she has something to help her through the coming year that she did not have during the couple's previous separations -- her involvement with the support group Her War, Her Voice.
Many of today's military wives have stories similar to Jacobs' -- stories dominated by their husbands' absences and homecomings. Yet, many of these women feel alone in their struggle to deal with the range of emotions that stem from this narrative.
This sense of isolation is what HWHV works to overcome, said the group's cofounder, Melissa Seligman.
Seligman and fellow Army wife Christina Piper launched HWHV in 2009 after realizing there was an unmet need for a forum for military wives to speak openly about their feelings, fears and frustrations without judgment or repercussions.
Originally an interactive online network, HWHV has recently added on-site chapters to its roster. Fort Jackson is one of only two military installations to offer an in-person HWHV group; the other is Fort Riley, Kan.
Many women might hear the phrase "support group," and assume that the group is geared primarily toward wives who are currently going through separations or who are suffering from depression or other problems. But Seligman said her aim is to dispel this misperception and reach out to any woman connected to the military -- civilian or Soldier, active-duty or retired, wife or mother.
"These are functional women," Seligman said. "Most of them are happy with their lives -- they're just tired and worn out. These are women in the middle -- they're OK, but they need to think, to process, a place to breathe."
Seligman said there is also a misconception that spouses only need support when they are dealing with lengthy separations or their husbands' long hours.
"When the deployments slow down, spouses suddenly have time to think about what's happened to them," Seligman said. "You begin taking stock of who you are as a person -- some of them haven't been able to do that in 10 years."
Jacobs, who works as executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, can attest to that. She said she made it through her husband's deployments by staying busy and distracted. It is only now that he has been home for two years that she has begun to deal with the emotional impact.
"I have had a harder time at Fort Jackson than when he was deployed," she said. "When things actually quiet down and you have time to process everything, that's when a lot of the depression and anxiety start catching up with you."
Much of what the Fort Jackson HWHV group focuses on is how its women feel about who they are and where they are in their lives. Seligman said these women often spend so much time performing their roles as supportive military spouses and single parents that they lose touch with their own identities.
"Melissa focuses a lot on encouraging women to take care of themselves," said Jacobs, who became a member of the group when it began meeting in March. "It's hard to focus on (your needs) when you are worrying so much about your spouse and your kids, but if you want to take care of your family, you have to take care of yourself."
During the group's monthly meetings, Seligman uses guided activities, such as yoga, self-defense, photography, and dishbreaking, to help participants express their feelings and identify underlying issues that may be at the root of other problems.
"I'm not a counselor or a psychologist," Seligman said. "I'm just another military spouse. But these are activities that have worked for me."
The former high school teacher uses her education training and her experience creating and facilitating retreats for military spouses in her approach to the meetings. She said the activities and discussion topics are selected with the intent of "planting a seed and giving these women an actionable way to keep it going at home."
The group also gives spouses an opportunity to speak their minds to a group of women who can understand them.
"This group gives spouses a safe place to share their personal experiences and feelings about life in the military," said Elizabeth Maher, the Army Community Services outreach program manager who Seligman said "provided immense support" for getting Fort Jackson's group up and running.
The group, which is not specific to military branch or unit and is not command-sponsored, "is a non-threatening environment with no rank, no cliques and no gossip," Maher said. "It's all about providing these women with positive alternatives for dealing with negative emotions and experiences."
"Her War gives us a voice," Jacobs said. "It's a space where we can talk about issues impacting us with other people who understand and without some of the stigma that can be attached to those feelings.
"That is so important here at Fort Jackson," she added, "because we don't have that community that develops during deployments, so women can feel even more isolated when they are struggling."
Maher said she has received wonderful feedback from women who participate in the group, and she would like to see it grow.
"Our mission statement says it all," said Seligman. "Her War, Her Voice improves the self-worth of military loved ones using authentic, creative and rankless interaction to bring about unity and integrity, and in doing so allows each person to be understood and accepted. That is our goal."
To learn more about HWHV Fort Jackson and upcoming meetings, visit www.facebook.com/HerWarHerVoice.